Words: Igor Glushkin
On the surface, The Squirrel Machine by Hans Rickheit is the story of two young eccentric brothers. Edmund is an inventor of bizarre trinkets and machinery, while William is a musician. They both live with their controlling mother in a small Victorian-like town at approximately the beginning of the 20th century. Delightfully strange and, at times, dream-like story regresses to their adolescent life where both boys pursued to invent weird musical machines made out of dead animals and steam-punk-like ornaments.
Early in the story, the brothers encounter “The Pig Lady” in the forest, who only speaks Latin. She gives the brothers severed pig heads for one of their bizarre inventions, a church-like organ. With forty-two pig heads attached for musical notes, their mother ridicules their effort. Later, the “Bovine Carcass” that was staged for a musical recital for the people of the town, resulted in a riot that had everyone in an uproar. The brother’s attempt to escape the townspeople and their mother’s wish to send them away to Military Academy. Edmund and William eventually retreat to a labyrinth of complex hidden rooms somewhere between their home and the fantasy they create. As a reader, we do not know what is literal and what is fantasy as we drift from one page to the next. And that is the beauty of it. Although the surrealistically illustrated story is still somewhat dull with limited character development, the rich ornamental style drawing, and the disturbing yet clean artwork paces us to continue reading this magical, never overwhelming journey of two brothers.
Beneath the boy’s bedroom is hidden rooms filled with juxtaposed objects, snail-like trinkets and what looks like inner mechanical working objects. The methodical craftsmanship of the author’s illustrations are quite impressive and are reminiscent to Hieronymus Bosch paintings also because of the sexually deviant acts that occur. I find that the illustrations can be more powerful when no dialogue is to be found, as such is the case with the wonderful way the author has devised the story.
Along the way, William is sexually engaged with “The Pig Lady”. They later decide to leave Edmund and run off to live together. One scene of their sexual encounter depicts them both wearing a two headed scuba-diving helmet surrounded by piles of skeletons, along with dead animal parts. When Edmund’s hand is enveloped into the pig lady’s face, he enters another dimension through her head. There is astonishing magic-realism of utmost bizarre imagery of Edmond’s hand poking through the face of the pig lady that reminds me of the sick and disturbing work of David Chronenberg, the famous filmmaker, who depicts similar cryptic plots of human bodies taking on alternative unearthly shapes. It’s a lot to take in this imaginative and sometimes disgusting artwork.After the brothers part ways, years pass by and we find an older William sleeping in a forest and awakened to meet his nephew. What follows is a set of awful but intriguing scenes that involve a gruesome death, cannibalism, and a the brother’s reunion that should be left to the readers to interpret for themselves.
Understanding the dream like, fable of the two brothers who create unsettling, animal-like musical instruments, or frolic in a mass amount of creepy little trinkets is gorgeously illustrated and may be more than what it appears to be. Definitely aimed at a more cerebral audience, Hans Rickheit’s work is complex and extremely visually compelling. I couldn’t help but feel a little sad overall after reading this book. The environment the boys live in and the structure of their society did not match with the creative potential Edmund and William had to offer.
I feel the story may be an artistic attempt, told by the author through the two boys’ journey, to deal with the awakening of sexuality in each and every one of us.
The imagery portrayed through the book is not for the light-hearted. Loose limbs, carcasses, and explicit sexual scenes, can be difficult to muster for a comic book reader of superheroes and the funnies. The Squirrel Machine is a tale of explicit images that forces the story to be read without any logic or explanation.